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Non-Review Review: The Hunt

The Hunt could never live up to the controversy.

After all, The Hunt was a film that attracted a considerable deal of attention. The basic premise of the movie finds a number of “deplorables” kidnapped and taken to a secret location, where wealthy liberals hunt them for sport. This premise attracted the attention of Fox News back in August. From there, it attracted the attention of the President of the United States. Donald Trump tweeted angrily about The Hunt, and within a day it was pulled from the release calendar.

The Hunt arrives in cinemas cresting that wave of controversy. The trailer for the new release date openly acknowledges the controversy and leans into it, encouraging prospective audience members to “decide for [themselves]” about it. So The Hunt arrives as an object of curiosity and fascination. Unfortunately, none of that feels earned. Indeed, it looks like the most remarkable thing about the shift in release dates was that it allowed The Hunt to avoid a direct class with the similar-but-superior “elites riff on The Most Dangerous Game” film Ready or Not.

The Hunt goes looking for controversy, but comes home empty handed.

To be fair, anybody familiar with both film production and basic logic would understand that the storm in the teacup around the initial plot synopsis was pure nonsense. The Most Dangerous Game is a pretty standard horror movie premise, and one that has been recycled countless times from Battle Royale to The Hunger Games. Adding a topical twist to that basic set-up is a nice way to garner a little attention or interest.

Fox News argued that The Hunt would be a surreal liberal fantasy about the joys of hunting Trump voters for sport. This was an absurdly stupid observation on a number of levels. Most obviously, that basic premise of The Hunt would clearly paint the liberals as the villains of the scenario. It perhaps says a lot about the way that Fox News sees the world that it assumed the wealthy elite hunting poor people for sport would somehow be the heroes of this narrative. If Hollywood were making anti-conservative propaganda, the premise of The Hunt would be a bad place to start.

More than that, anybody who has ever seen a movie before would recognise that the set-up is an obvious red herring. There is no way that The Hunt begins and ends at that point, particularly given the involvement of director Craig Zobel and writer Damon Lindelof. Zobel is responsible for Compliance and several episodes of The Leftovers, while Lindelof was one of the architects of Lost. There was no way that the premise of The Hunt wasn’t going to twist and turn from that starting point, doubling back over itself and playing with expectations.

Indeed, the worst thing about the whole nonsense controversy is that it demonstrated how reluctant people are to actually watch (or even think about) movies before engaging with them. The trailer for the second release of The Hunt is effectively the movie in miniature. It makes a point to allude to various developments and revelations, seeding various plot points well ahead of time. It has the feeling of a movie that is desperately afraid of potentially offending any of the people who might actually be bothered to take offense at it.

As such, the film lacks any real bite. The film is very careful to avoid taking any serious swings at the political right. Labels are forced upon the subjects of this ghastly hunt – “homophobes”, “racists”, “deplorables”, “academically-challenged” – but all from the mouths of the movie’s sinister villains. There’s never any real sense of what the characters being hunted actually believe and what they actually endorse. The film is careful to treat its victims as a set of generic archetypes. Despite the fact there are only twelve targets, very few of them get any substantive lines before being brutally dispatched.

What little taste The Hunt offers of its victims’ political beliefs are purely expositional and are all validated by the plot of the movie. The motley selection of targets have been assembled because they subscribe to a theory called “Manorgate”, which presupposes that rich liberals are abducting poor conservatives and hunting them for sport. Other conspiracy theories bubble to the surface – such as the suggestion that fleeing refugees are “crisis actors”, including a “crisis baby.” Of course, these are more often set-ups for jokes about how these absurd suggestions all happen to be real in this particular case.

There is something very toothless in all of this, a sense that The Hunt is desperately afraid of actually engaging with the political controversy that it has courted. The characters assembled for this hunt are all bland and interchangeable. The film’s opening act is a very clever shell game, as it cycles through a set of decoy protagonists before landing on its real hero. It is the most exhilarating part of the film, particularly given that Zobel managed to attract a number of recognisable faces to serve as decoys. It does manage to keep the audience slightly off-balance during the frantic opening half-hour.

However, after a while, it becomes clear that the purpose of these decoy protagonists is to effectively limit the necessity for character development. The film doesn’t have to spend any real time with these “deplorables”, and so doesn’t have to get inside their heads. This is a problem for a film that seems to be – at least in part – about the horrific consequences of dehumanising political opponents. The Hunt largely refuses to take its subjects either literally or seriously, to challenge the audience to sympathise with characters who genuinely believe these monstrous things.

The result is a film that lacks any real sense of courage or vision. By the time that The Hunt settles on a single definitive lead character in its second act, it takes great pains to distinguish that character from her fellow targets. Crystal doesn’t post angrily about conspiracy theories on the internet. Crystal has actually served her country overseas in Afghanistan. More to the point, the film is very quiet about what Crystal actually believes; she doesn’t even know about “Manorgate”, doesn’t believe in “crisis actors” and is willing to surrender her firearm if the situation calls for it.

This all feels like a giant copout, and a betrayal of the film’s core themes. A bolder version of The Hunt would challenge the audience to root for a character that existed outside of various assumptions about certain classes of people. In contrast, the version of The Hunt released is very careful to avoid actually specifying about whether Crystal even voted for Donald Trump. The end result is a film that feels very generic. The interrogation of the politics of wealth and marriage in Ready or Not were more provocative than anything here, more pointed and more subversive.

Instead, The Hunt leans rather heavily into the idea that liberals are basically insufferable, and that the political left still hasn’t made peace with the surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. At one point, Crystal tells a story about the hare and “the box turtle”, the famous Aesop fairytale about how the arrogance of the speedy hare allowed it to be outmaneuvered by the steadiness of the box turtle. However, Crystal adds a pointed coda to her story. In Crystal’s version, the hare avenged itself on the box turtle with furious vengeance and righteous anger.

“Are we the hare or the box turtle?” asks Crystal’s companion, and there is certainly some ambiguity. Perhaps the liberals are the box turtle, the “elite” who have made steady gains over the past few decades only to come to terms with the horrific vengeance of a demographic unaccustomed to challenge. Perhaps the liberals are the hare, so humiliated by an unexpected defeat as to render themselves monsters. However The Hunt might intend to apply the metaphor to its liberal and conservative characters, the liberals come out the worst of it – they are either foolish box turtles or vindictive psychotic hares.

There are obviously very valid and very sharp criticisms to be made of the political left. Get Out rightly skewered the politics of appropriation that take place among supposedly liberal people. Similarly, Promising Young Woman reserves its greatest anger for the so-called “nice guys” who cultivate pseudo-feminist public personas without a hint of self-awareness. There might be something in the way that The Hunt approaches its portrayal of the wealthy liberal establishment as out-of-touch or disengaged from the people they so viciously mock.

Instead, the central thesis of The Hunt seems to be, “Gee, aren’t liberals annoying sometimes?” Characters bigger over whether it’s appropriate to use the term “black people.” One goads his victim, “Climate change is real.” Another apologises for using the term “guys” to refer to a mixed group, conceding, “I gendered it.” When one of the hunters has second thoughts about slaughtering a target, her companion assures her, “He probably used the n-word. And not in private. He probably posted it on Twitter.”

The Hunt gets a couple of laughs from this set-up. There is something darkly funny about an undercover operative who accidentally exposes himself when he pauses during a conversation about why these people have been targeted to assert, “I would never blame the victims.” Similarly, there is something a little funny in the casual name-dropping of Ava DuVernay. However, it all feels rather shallow and generic. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of The Hunt is that what little political fun it is willing to have comes at the expense of liberals rather than conservatives. Maybe liberals are just less likely to send death threats.

The Hunt arguably signals its trollish intention in its opening scene. Zobel has assembled an impressive cast for his bloody thriller, including recognisable faces like Oscar-winner Hillary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Ethan Suplee and Macon Blair. However, the film makes a point not to open on any of these, but with an extended dialogue-driven scene featuring Glenn Howerton being obnoxious. This sequence is as much a statement of purpose as the brutality that follows, positioning The Hunt as a film aiming for the sort of wry “people are the worst” provocation associated with Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So, stripping away the political veneer, The Hunt is just a pretty standard riff on The Most Dangerous Game. Indeed, it resembles nothing so much as a slightly more comedic version of the Hostel movies – a similarity reinforced by the Eastern European setting of the story. To Zobel’s credit, The Hunt leans into its violence and horror. Bodies explode, limbs are torn asunder, entrails are scattered. The opening sequence features a surprisingly graphic death by stiletto. The Hunt is a trashy movie, but it is aware of its trashiness.

In purely mechanical terms, The Hunt never seems to harbour aspirations of being anything more than a B-movie. The film leans into the comedic elements of its premise, with characters pausing in the middle of a heated fist fight to open a door rather than throwing one another through it. (“Not the glass!” one shouts at the last minute.) There’s a consciously campy quality to it all that constantly shifts between “charming” and “suffocating.” It prevents the movie from ever feeling suffocatingly self-serious, but it also underscores the extent to which the film’s political themes are nothing more than idle trolling.

This juvenile provocation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, given the cacophony around its release, there was almost something clever in the way that Joker felt like a work of trollish provocation. The problem with The Hunt is that the film’s central message seems to be that people should try to be less mean and vindictive to one another; the plot’s inciting incident is ultimately tied back to people saying mean things about one another in public or pseudo-public forums, and the movie suggests that repeating that sort of rhetoric often enough has a strange way of making it true. As such, the trollishness feels self-defeating.

The Hunt is ultimately a generic B-movie that just happens to have stumbled upon a marketing campaign that the film itself could never live up to.

One Response

  1. The fact that Hollywood made a movie “about” the liberal/conservative divide that transparently had nothing to say about it besides “conservatives tragic victims, liberals evil overlords,” and yet was immediately Twitter-mobbed for it by conservatives for being liberal propaganda, feels like the reductio ad absurdum of everything stupid I’ve ever heard about American cultural politics.

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